Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World
David VanDrunen. Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020, 400 pp. $29.99, paperback.
Politics after Christendom is the culmination of two and half decades of David VanDrunen’s scholarly inquiries into natural law, covenant theology, and two-kingdom theology. For a deeper analysis of his foundational thinking on these topics see his books Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought and Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law, both published by Eerdmans.
Part One of this book outlines the author’s “political theology” which he defines as theological reflections on public and political life in the period between Christ’s ascension and return. He makes the case that political institutions have four key characteristics. They are legitimate, provisional, common, and accountable. That is to say, they are sanctioned by God, they are not eternal, they are for the benefit of both Christians and non-Christians, and they are under divine authority. Part One is a summary of his previous work in other books and articles. For those new to VanDrunen, this will provide a helpful introduction. Those who are unconvinced by his argument should consider his earlier detailed work.
Part Two of the book provides a framework for how this political theology might be applied to various political dilemmas such as religious liberty, the family, economic systems, justice, and political resistance. He first explains the modesty of his proposal. Political theology is grounded in natural law and natural law provides frameworks, not detailed instructions. He does not attempt to provide the Christian view stating that “Therefore, while Christians are free to try to persuade others to agree with their political judgments, they should ordinarily not present them as the Christian view, that is, as necessary points of Christian dogma or biblical exegesis.”
The first issue he tackles is pluralism and religious liberty. He argues for a generally pluralistic society where the basic Noahic institutions of family life, enterprise institutions, and justice are equally available to all. He gives brief attention to racial pluralism and more attention to religious pluralism. He argues that a society should not exclude anyone from its benefits based upon religious beliefs, should not establish a religion for society, and should not generally exclude religious practices. He gives several legal cases from the Supreme Court in this section by way of illustration, such as Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby (regarding contraception) and Yoder v. Wisconsin (regarding education.) He makes the case that the government has no business becoming involved in either healthcare or education. I wish he had also discussed the 1983 case of Bob Jones University v. United States where the Supreme Court upheld the right of the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of religious educational institutions that practice racial discrimination. This would have tied together his section on racial pluralism and religious pluralism and provides an excellent case study for when the two values come into conflict.
Next, VanDrunen turns to family institutions. He makes the case that the main purpose of marriage is procreation and the raising of children and that this is best done in monogamous, heterosexual, and permanent relationships. Further, the very fact that families exist indicates that government should be limited and not encroach into family responsibilities such as providing a social safety net. He does not say whether he believes this means that government should have no role in mediating divorce, determining who should be married, or passing any other law regarding marriage or sexual relations. Since marriage is open to non-believers, the church can’t serve as mediator for all marriage in a society, and yet some institution must administer justice when a marriage falls apart and pass laws deciding who is allowed to marry and at what stage of life.
VanDrunen then turns to economics arguing that free market economies are more consistent with the goals of the Noahic covenant than command economies, but he leaves room for different types of market economies with varying amounts of government intervention. He acknowledges that there is no such thing as a pure market economy or a pure command economy and that there is much room for disagreement on how “pure” a particular economy should be. He asserts that enterprise structures are created (not natural, like family structures) and entered into voluntarily. Yet slavery is an example of an enterprise structure that is not entered into voluntarily. VanDrunen is strangely silent on whether or not this particular enterprise arrangement is a violation of negative natural rights.
VanDrunen spends some time on the issue of human rights. He believes that the Noahic covenant establishes negative universal rights to all people such as the right not to be murdered, raped, stolen from, or even slandered. However, it does not establish positive or welfare rights such as the right to food, housing, or medical care. In his list of negative rights, he avoids mention of two controversial negative rights, namely the right not to be enslaved and the right not to be tortured.
From justice, VanDrunen next turns to laws and customs. These provide the “meat” or details behind justice and can be established by family, enterprise, and government institutions. The Noahic covenant does not provide a list of laws and customs but does provide societies with clues about how they might be established. He advocates a polycentric view of law, that says government is not the only or even most important source of law. Law refers to customary legal order rather than a set of written decrees given by those in authority.
VanDrunen finally argues for a “conservative liberalism” which sounds like a contradiction until one understands that he is not using the modern definitions of those terms which he believes are more properly labeled as “nationalism” and “progressivism.” Instead, a liberal politic is one that is pluralistic and tolerant and defends people’s negative natural rights. A conservative politic is one that appreciates the accumulated wisdom of the past and embraces slow modest change that is localized rather than wide-scale.
I found Part One of the book to be more satisfying than Part Two. The Noahic Covenant is purposefully non-specific and does not provide a blueprint on how humans should accomplish its goals, what institutions are best for accomplishing those goals, and how those institutions should interact. VanDrunen acknowledges this and yet seems to read back some of his classical liberalism into the Noahic Covenant instead of resting with the ambiguity. I would argue that Part One makes the case that Part Two should probably not exist in a “political theology” but should instead be a separate secular work. However, Politics After Christendom is an excellent reminder that Christians should hold their political convictions tentatively and be tolerant of fellow believers with differing views. When combined with a consistent application of the doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, the views presented by VanDrunen provide an excellent alternative path that avoids the pitfalls of the Evangelical Left and Right. One need not accept all of VanDrunen’s legal theories and assessment of classical liberalism and conservatism to appreciate the view he proposes.
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando